Performance trainer Brett Bartholomew has been a full-time strength coach for 10 years, and was the director of EXOS’ offseason veteran football program for the last three. Because the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement leaves team strength coaches with limited player access – five weeks – for summer preparation, it’s coaches like Bartholomew that actually spend more time getting them ready for training camp.
Having trained names like Matthew Stafford, Julius Peppers, Christian Ponder, Richie Incognito, and Jonathan Stewart, Bartholomew knows what it takes to make it at the elite level. Surprisingly, that journey often requires less work.
Outside of extreme cases, such as when Ponder showed up this January and trained all the way up until NFL OTAs, Bartholomew says that rest might be the most important part of an NFL player’s offseason. Many athletes believe in the more is better mentality, completely overlooking the benefits of rest and relaxation.
I recently caught up with Bartholomew to talk about that misconception, as well as what goes into training NFL stars like Stafford and Peppers.
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What programs are you running with the players?
Brett Bartholomew: It’s divided in three major phases, the first of which is active recovery and foundation. Getting the guys ready at the end of last season, January and February, just to a point where their body is healthy again, basic movement skills. We’re not doing a whole lot of aggressive weight room work or aggressive drills. We’re just getting their body right.
As we move into phase two, we start working more on strength and power. We break the program up into phases that span two to three weeks at a time that focus on different components, whether it’s strength or power or endurance. The first stage is active recovery. The second stage is actually OTA preparation to get them ready for team activities. And then the third stage is getting them ready for camp.
The long story short, among those three phases the program intensifies as we get closer and closer to the season. At the beginning when we aren’t doing a lot of strength work, that’s contrasted at the end when we actually take them out to a field and doing position-specific work. We’re doing three days a week in the weight room and making sure they’re ready to rock.
Obviously you have to cater the work to different positions but how do you go about training Matthew Stafford on one hand and then Julius Peppers on another?
BB: To a degree, you’re making small adjustments to the position. With Matthew being a quarterback we’re going to use more dumbbell movements and working on more shoulder mobility. With Julius Peppers, you have to make sure he has great hip mobility but he’s also gotta be strong and powerful and quick off the line. By and large their foundation is the same. They all need to work on strength, stability, mobility, and power. It’s just the unique and subtle adjustments to see what tweaks we can make on certain drills to make it more pertinent to what they’re doing.
They aren’t doing programs that are complete opposites of each other. It’s more of a focus on the details that we switch up a little bit.
Julius Peppers is a great athlete who played two sports in college. What sticks out about him in these drills?
BB: God, athleticism is the best term for it. Whether we’re talking about his coordination or his explosive power, the guy just knows how to put his body in the right positions to exude maximum force. In football, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not just about being strong or powerful. It’s knowing the right angles to take and the rest way to leverage your body, and using that ability and stability against your opponent. He’s very aware of where he is in space and how to use that against his opponent.
With the big-name players, was there anything that surprised you when you first started working with them?
BB: That’s a great question. Usually what I find is the guys who have been in the league the longest and have had the most success are the most humble. Unfortunately in the NFL, especially with the amount of money that they’re paid, sometimes when they’re rookies or maybe when they’re a year in… cocky is not the right word but let’s say overconfident where they think they got it, or at least going into the Combine they got it. But after a number of years in the league, they understand the important of training. That’s the biggest thing. The older players understand about the significant difference in the weight room and working on movement and all that. The younger guys have been able to get by on ability for so long that a lot of them don’t understand the importance of training.
The number one thing we try to communicate with the older veterans, and what they’ll tell you is that it’s not just about getting stronger, faster, and more powerful. Training, as you spend more time in the league, is about being resistant to injury. The most important ability in the NFL is durability and that’s something that strength and power help with tremendously.
How does training with older players differ from working with younger guys?
BB: Without a doubt. Older player, it kind of depends on the state that their body’s in and that’s why we always do assessments on them. But if a guy is dealing with some tendonitis or some issues with a knee, we’ll decrease the amount of plyometrics that he does or we’ll change them. Maybe instead of jumping over hurdles where he has to land on the ground, he’ll jump on the box to decrease the amount of force going into the knees and ankles. Also, we modify their running and conditioning a little bit.
We don’t cater to them. We don’t baby them. But it’s just about making sure we’re not grinding them into the ground. We’re looking at overall decreases in volume, I would say.
Our two programs are for guys training for the NFL Combine and then the offseason vet program. When guys are training for the Combine, it’s a very narrow focus. It’s only on the 40-yard dash, and certain agility drills and vertical jump and broad jump and bench press. With the veterans, there are so many more variables. We’re not just preparing them for tests. We are preparing them to play, taking in account their years in the league, position, and injuries. We do a little bit of everything in their training. There are times we use lighter weights more quickly. Sometimes we’re lifting heavy weights more slowly. It’s more of a whole-listic mindset there as opposed to the Combine where it’s narrow, more specific training focus.
What’s the most important offseason training technique that the veterans like Stafford and Peppers can master?
BB: I’ll give you two things: the most important part of the offseason and then the most important part of our training program. The most important part of the offseason is actually taking the time to recover. Getting out of the weight room and the training environment. I don’t want to see guys in January. It’s great, and Ponder was a different deal, and some of those guys if they’re coming off a rough season and want to get started that’s great. But by and large it’s such a long season that they need to get away for awhile.
I did an article with ESPN not too long ago on the importance of recovery. If they don’t take the time with family and vacation, not only will their personal lives suffer from that, which is huge, but many of them have a hard time still not waking up in the middle of the night, getting used to that alarm clock going off because they have to go to meetings. A lot of them do also have joint and knee issues later on. That’s repetitive stress and strain on their bodies over the course of the season, they need to get off that and do something different whether it’s going on a vacation or simply just relaxing. They want to take advantage of a good four-week program there and just sort of chill out.
The most important part of our training program is the warm-up, or what we call movement prep. Within that movement prep, we use a series of exercises that work on not only their mobility and stability but also basic coordination skills. It’s almost like building yoga. It helps free up all their joints so they can really move and work on some of those tight areas. It’s funny. The warm-up and movement prep is an area where most people would think to relax but really they are what set the stage and give you that foundation for great movement skills over time.
What do you guys do with players who have nagging injuries?
BB: They all have injuries. When they come in they get a classified physical therapist. The physical therapist gives us an idea of what’s breaking down on them. There are three key areas of the body where we typically see problems, what we call our pillars. Look at the hips. Usually guys are tight or weak in the hips, and we’re always looking at the joint above and below. Their torso is also an area. If someone’s trunk is not stable or weak, that can cause them to breakdown no matter how powerful their lower body is. That keeps them from transferring the energy in the right places or absorbing it. And then there’s the shoulders obviously because of all the contact.
A couple of the ways we’ll use it aside from them getting treatment from physical therapists here and taking advantage of the hot tub and the cold tub and different recovery aspects we have, is in between sets while they’re resting during their lifts, we’ll have what we call corrective strategies outlined for them. These are movements that are almost rehabilitated in nature that help them strengthen weak areas or work on getting the correct movement pattern.
For example, if we’re doing a squat and a pull-up back-to-back while they then get a rest period after performing one set of each. We may have a guy that has a core deficiency do a plank after his squats and pull-ups. We might have a guy with a shoulder injury do a lat or a mobility exercise for his lat or his pec or his shoulder in general. And for a guy with hips, we may have him do a hip stretch or hip activation exercise. We try to build that into the program where they need to be resting at certain periods anyway but instead of sitting on a bench or waiting, they’re actually working on a weak point.
A lot of these guys, like you mentioned, come in and don’t really know how to train because they’ve gotten by on athleticism. What’s something all good young players can master to get to this level?
BB: Well to clarify, they’re not all like that. Usually it’s the younger players are the ones that get by on ability. The older players have been humbled and really understand the importance of training. Most of the successful guys are hard workers who’ve been humbled and understand the importance because as you get beat down your ability is just not enough anymore, especially when you’re around other great players.
I think one thing that’s so important for young players is the importance of recovery. Everyone wants to talk about the training and that’s what affects everyone. We have this more, more, more mentality, and what you’re seeing is players can sometimes do too much and their body can’t recover. You don’t always need to train as hard as you can. You need to train as hard as you should. That means that you find that optimal balance between work and rest so that when it’s time to perform you have gas left in the tank and haven’t worn yourself out over training.
I had a kid that came in recently who wanted to train two times a day and he was training outside of here as well. His father just couldn’t believe when I told him that he needs to train less because the idea was “Oh, when I was a kid we trained all the time and it worked for us.” What you want to tell them is that just because it was successful doesn’t mean it was optimal. The body can only rebound so much. [They should know] the importance of recovery, the importance of continuing to play a variety of sports until about the age of 16, 17 or 18 just because you learn so much in regards to the different movements and agility and sports. You don’t want to specialize too soon. Those are big problems that I see in our culture right now: the “more is better” philosophy and also kids specializing in sport way too soon. That repetitive overuse is going to wear them down over time and unfortunately won’t let their natural ability shine through.
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